Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Napa in the Making?

Well, maybe that's going a little too far. But the wine region around Neuquén, Argentina more than satisfied our wanderlust (not to mention our palates) for two days while our husbands were working all day. With the help of the hotel staff, we were on our way in a car with a guide within two hours of asking how we could get out to the three wineries that give public tours. Victoria not only spoke English well, she worked for three years at one of the wineries, teaches wine tasting courses and is studying to be a sommelier!

On our daily jaunts to the wine region, we zipped passed Southwestern U.S.-looking terrain, groves of apple trees and rambleshack parillas. We criss-crossed the Neuquén river between Neuquén and Rio Negro provinces. We tasted Parker-esque malbecs, merlots, cabs and pinots at three wineries with high production values and restaurants with floor-to-ceiling windows of vineyards.

Our first stop on day 1 was NQN winery ( where after a quick tour and wine tasting, we had a leisurely lunch. JM, a vegetarian traveler in one of the more carnivorous countries in the world, was particularly impressed with her salad ("a very flavorful and light salad, with green beans and corn."). My grilled pork with sweet potatoes and apple chutney was comfort food at its best. The post-meal cortado (a shot of espresso with steamed milk) helped to prevent napping on the way to our next stop, Bodega Fin del Mundo (literally, the end of the world). (

On day 2, we took a different route across the Neuquén River, where we stopped to snap photos of the bridge, the deep blue water and three dogs napping nearby.

The final stop on our tour, Bodega Familias Schroeder ( had the least interesting wines but gorgeous landscaping (sweet-smelling lavender, palm trees, park benches) and an amazing restaurant that would have made Ferran Adrià proud, with his goal
"to provoke, surprise and delight the diner." (

The chef at Saurus (named for the dinosaurs discovered under the building a few years back) pulled out all the stops for his only diners that day. To start, an amuse bouche of fruit ravioli with blueberry foam:

An appetizer of beet carpaccio with arugula, parmesan, berries and hazelnuts:
Entrees to satisfy meat-lovers and vegetarians alike (though a bit heavy on the carbs... yes, that's bacon-wrapped grilled chicken with mashed sweet potatoes and roasted potatoes on the side!).

And for dessert... white chocolate soup with floating chunks of pound cake and a dusting of dark chocolate!

The only thing missing was other people. Granted we visited on weekdays, but I have a feeling weekends are just as empty. Tourism is just beginning to creep into the region, and with the nearest major town a 45 minute drive away with not much in between, it unfortunately may be a long time in coming.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Not Your Usual College Town Cuisine

I've figured out a routine that works quite well when I'm on quickie business trips to less than top-tier destinations - as in my visit to Madison, Wisconsin this week!

*Book a room in a centrally located hotel.

*Check out the alternative weekly paper a few days before arriving - search for the best restaurants, coffee houses, wine stores, galleries and museums (if they don't have such a paper, reconsider the trip).

*Jot the top contenders in your little black moleskine book, google map them in relation to your hotel and be totally psyched to discover most are within walking distance.

*Arrive as early as possible on the day before the work begins.

*Buy the latest issue of the city's monthly magazine on your way out of the airport (if they don't have such a magazine, lower your expectations but remain cautiously optimistic).

*Review the information you've gathered and look for arrows pointing in the same direction. As in: the "chef of the year" on the cover of Madison Magazine was recently given an award by the James Beard Foundation and highlighted by the New York Times Magazine as Madison's "must visit restaurant." Hmm...where to have dinner?

*Give the impression that you're a reviewer from out-of-town without actually saying so. While ordering an espresso macchiato after lunch at the cafe connected to what Gourmet Magazine rates as being one of the best "farm-to-table" restaurants in the country, I casually mentioned that I was doing a taste test of espresso around town. Soon enough, the barista (a cute college kid) came over to regale me with stories of how they use fresh roasted fair trade beans and local milk from grass-fed cows, and how I can try the same coffee with milk from a different dairy farm a few doors up the street. Oh, and a delicious drink with foam art in the shape of an apple, stem and leaf!

*Enter stores with a clear mission, as in: "I've read about your artisanal cheeses and I'm here to buy a 1/4 pound of four varieties that will travel well back with me to Toronto. What do you have for me to taste?" and "I'm looking for wines I can't get back in Toronto - you know, they have government-run liquor stores there and the selection isn't great."

Places I'd go back to in a heart beat:

Cafe Soleil - the casual lunch spot of the famed L'Etoile Restaurant that's been serving up "seasonal menus...inspired by the artisans and small sustainable farms of the Midwest and... rendered with a French technique" since 1976. My $20 lunch was more than memorable: a cup of roasted cauliflower soup with bits of chorizo sprinkled on top with a drizzle of garlic olive oil and the market salad: local greens, pear, fennel, red onion, blue paradise cheese, pecans and creamy lemon-garlic vinaigrette, with slices of grilled chicken on the side. Oh, and the above-mentioned macchiato!

25 N Pinckney St, (608) 251-0500,

Fromagination - a beautifully presented shop that has a "passion for spectacular artisan, specialty and organic cheeses." With the help of the knowledgeable man behind the counter, I sampled and smuggled back 4 cheeses that I don't think usually make it out of state. The descriptions (corrected for spelling) are theirs, but having just had a cheese plate for dinner with a couple of glasses of 2005 Tait Basket-Pressed Shiraz, I wouldn't argue with them:

Dante by WI Sheep Dairy Cooperative - a firm cheese made with sheep's milk from flocks in WI and nearby states; flavour is pleasantly sheepy, buttery and nutty.

Bandaged cheddar by Bleu Mont Diary - a hard British farmhouse-style cheddar, cloth-bound and cave-aged with big flavour and good balance.

Farmstead gouda by Holland's Family Farm - a hard traditional farmstead gouda made by a Dutch cheesemaker with WI cow's milk, with a sweet carmelized flavour (my favourite of the lot, with its crumbly, crystalline texture)

Pleasant ridge reserve by Uplands Cheese -a hard, handmade Alpine-style raw milk cheese, only made when the cows are grazing on pasture, with nutty and subtle floral notes.

12 S Carroll, (608) 255-2430,

Fair Trade Coffeehouse is the perfect place to re-caffeinate, check email and transport yourself back to college. I wasn't able to report back to nodrog on the make and model of their grinder and espresso machine (I have got to remember to get that stuff down), but my latte was damn good!

418 State Street, (608) 268-0477,

Harvest Restaurant, two doors down from L'Etoile, received all the accolades noted above for its "menu enhanced by seasonal locally-grown, and organic ingredients." (See, I'm telling you... this is a foodie town!). The meal easily made up for the so-so service (long waits to order and between courses; a substitution request apparently denied), and were we really in a rush to get back to watch Obama and McCain rail into each other anyway?

Amuse bouche: Little white tureens of gazpacho (with a peppery kick)
Appetizers: Slow Roasted Beets,Toasted Hazelnuts, Ader Kase Reserve Blue Cheese, Hazelnut Vinaigrette ($8) & Salad of Field Greens, Herbs, Winter Vegetables, Sherry Walnut Vinaigrette ($6).

Entrees: A special of braised short ribs served on polenta ($27) & Porcini Salt Rubbed Angus Tenderloin, Spinach, Roasted Fingerling Potatoes (missing but not substituted in my case), Porcini Mustard (36).

The total came to $50/person, each with appetizer, entree and non-alcoholic beverage (they had a reasonably priced and interesting wine list, including nearly a dozen half-bottles, but we had to be up early...).

21 N Pinckney St, (608) 255-6075,

The Gift Shop at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (yeah, that's right - I don't actually recommend the museum itself, which should more appropriately be called "two small rooms of mediocre art"). The shop has a remarkable collection of jewelry, handbags, scarves, and crafts, many by Wisconsin artists. Kristin Lewis' Yofi scarves, "triple layer chiffon" are must-haves.

227 State Street, (608) 257-0158,

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Toronto or Amsterdam?

We ventured out at 10 pm last night to experience Nuit Blanche, the "all night art thingy" in its third year. After pouring over the online program, printing out our top choices and marking our route on the map, we flashed our TTC day pass and headed down to City Hall for an incredible light and sound show. But it was the aroma that caught my attention, here and everywhere else we wandered...